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The Story Of St. Eugene's Cathedral

The first Christian presence in Derry was the monastery founded by St. Columba in the 6th century. It became one of the greatest and most influential of Irish monasteries. In the middle of the 12th century Flaitbertach Ó Brolcháin was abbot of the Derry monastery and was a major figure in the Irish Church of that time. He embarked on the construction of a magnificent church in Derry - The Teampall Mór, which was completed in 1164.

Outline boundaries for a diocesan structure in Ireland were established by the Synods of the Twelfth Century reform. The boundaries of the Derry Diocese today are largely the same as those agreed at that time. The diocese of Derry embraces most of County Derry, most of the western and northern areas of County Tyrone, the Inishowen Peninsula and part of east Donegal as well as the city of Derry. The episcopal seat was initially located in Rathlury in County Derry, near the modern day town of Maghera. Pope Innocent IV approved a decision to move the episcopal seat to Derry in 1254. The Teampall Mór was designated as Derry’s diocesan Cathedral. It served as Derry’s Cathedral for more than 300 years.

Teampall Mór was located near the site of the present Long Tower Church, about half a mile from St. Eugene’s Cathedral.

When the English forces, commanded by Colonel Randolph, landed in Derry in the 1560s, the Teampall Mór was seized by them and was used as a gunpowder magazine. It was seriously damaged by an accidental explosion on 24th April 1568. On 16th April 1600, Sir Henry Docwra entered Derry with a force of 4,000 soldiers. He tore down the ruins of the Teampall Mór and used its stones to build the walls and ramparts of Derry City. The only known relic of the Teampall Mór in existence is a small square tablet of stone inscribed in Latin: ‘In Templo Vervs Devs Est Verec Colendus’ (‘The True God is in His Temple and is to be truly worshipped’). It can be seen today in the porch of the Church of Ireland Cathedral - St. Columb’s.

The 17th century was a particularly difficult and painful time for the Catholic community in Derry. Their Bishop, Réamonn Ó Gallachair (1569 - 1601) was murdered just outside Derry by English yeomanry in March 1601. No Catholic Bishop was able to exercise office or permitted to reside in Derry from 1601 until 1720. It was the time of the Penal Laws and the people endured intense persecution and great injustice. When the Penal Laws were eventually eased and the Catholic Bishop was permitted to reside and exercise office in Derry again, the Catholic Church had no church buildings and very few clergy.

Saint Eugene’s Cathedral

It was not until the 1830s, following the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829, that the Catholic community was able to contemplate building a Cathedral again. In the summer of 1838, a number of Catholics of the city met in the school room of the Long Tower under the presidency of their Bishop, Peter McLaughlin (1824 - 1840) to consider the construction of a new Cathedral. It was agreed to be a “praiseworthy object” and a committee was appointed to make the necessary arrangements and raise funds. However, during the next decade famine and hunger were foremost in people’s minds, and the construction of a Cathedral was less important than their desperate attempt to survive. In fact during the late 1840s, Bishop Edward Maginn (1846-1849) and several priests of the Derry diocese died of cholera and other famine-related diseases whilst ministering to the people.

Bishop Francis Kelly (1849-1889) was appointed Bishop in September 1849 by Pope Pius IX. During his episcopate the diocese of Derry was revitalised. In November 1849, the site for St. Eugene’s Cathedral - then known as Friars’ Gort (near the site of a former Dominican Friary - present day Columbcille Court) was purchased from William Hazlett and the foundation stone was laid on 26th July 1851. For nearly quarter of a century afterwards, stone was laid upon stone.

The Cathedral cost a little over £40,000 to build, of which £4,000 was raised in America and the rest was donated by the people of Derry. William Roddy, editor of the Derry Journal said in 1899: “Do not let us forget that this is a Cathedral built out of the pennies of the poor, the sixpences of those not quite so poor and the shillings of those who were better-to-do”.

The construction of the Cathedral was sporadic as the funds became available over twenty five years, and owing to the difficulty in raising money, it was agreed to postpone the building of the tower, belfry and spire until a later date. Due to the lack of funds in the diocese, the windows were initially all of plain glass and it was only in the later years that the stained glass that we see today was installed.

J.J. McCarthy (1817-1882) was the architect commisioned to design St. Eugene’s Cathedral. He was the most outstanding church architect in Ireland of his time and designed many churches and convents all over the country, including - St. Patrick’s Cathedral, Armagh; St. Mary’s Church, Dingle, Co. Kerry; St. Macartan’s Cathedral, Monaghan; St. Ignatius’ Church, Galway and the Cathedral of the Assumption, Thurles, Co. Tipperary.

St. Eugene’s Cathedral was solemnly opened on the 4th May 1873 by Bishop Kelly, in the presence of Cardinal McGettigan and all the Catholic Bishops of the North. The sacred vessels used that day are still in the Cathedral. The intricately patterned chalice, paten, ciborium, cruets and tray were crafted by a firm of goldsmiths - Le Roux, Paris. The chalice continues to be used by the Bishop on special church occasion, the Holy Saturday night vigil and Christmas Midnight Mass.

The project to provide the spire and its beautiful carillon of bells opened a new chapter in the history of the Cathedral. The money for the bells was raised by the Ladies Committee, under the presidency of Miss Roddy (sister of the then editor of the Derry Journal).

The movement for the erection of the spire was inaugurated at a meeting in St. Columb’s Hall on 4th April 1899. Bishop John Keys O’Doherty (1890-1907), in the course of his address said: “It is now 60 years since the first collection was made for the contemplated building, 48 since the foundation stone was laid and 26 since it was solemnly dedicated for divine worship, and yet it remains unfinished. I know how anxiously you long to hear the Belss of St. Eugene’s ring out over the City and it is to hasten that joyful event that we are assembled here tonight to inaugurate the collection of the funds necessary for the erection of the tower and spire wherin to hang the bells”.

Subsequently, Bishop O’Doherty put forward a resolution in which it was proposed to inaugurate a collection. The project received enthusiastic support from as far away as America. In fact, Fr. Daniel O’Doherty who was sent by Bishop O’Doherty to fundraise in Boston, died while he was there. He is buried in Clonmany graveyard. It was estimated that the project would cost in the region of £15,000. The contract for the construction was awarded to the firm of Courtney & Co., Belfast, which had put in a tender of £11,709. The architect appointed for the project was E.J. Toye, Derry, assisted by G.C. Ashlin, Dublin. It is not clear whether or not McCarthy had already designed the spire in his original plans. There is, in the diocesan archives, a drawing signed by G.C. Ashlin and E.J. Toye Architects described as ‘Revised Design’ dated March 1900. Work began on 13th August 1900 and the last stone was placed on the 256ft (78m) spire on 19th June 1903.

On 27th June 1903 an 8ft high granite cross, weighing 15cwts and secured by a rod of gun metal, was sunk 30ft into the spire. The cross was put in position by two priests - Father John Doherty and Father Lawrence Hegarty.

When the debt for the Cathedral had been cleared, it was solemnly consecrated on 21st April 1936 by Bishop Bernard O’Kane (1926-1939)
In the presence of Cardinal McRory (Archbishop of Armagh at the time).

To commemorate the Solemn Consecration, all the clergy present on the day signed a visitors’ book. Since that time, the book, which is kept in the sacristy, has been signed by special visitors to the Cathedral.

Post Vatican II

The changes in the liturgy of the Church, subsequent to the Second Vatican Council, necessitated reorganisation of the Cathedral sanctuary. A temporary wooden alter was installed in May 1964. A further temporary reorganisation of the sanctuary took place in 1975, prior to the live transmission of Christmas Midnight Mass on Eurovision from the Cathedral.

From the early 1980s the need was felt to carry out major renovation. The original structure was over one hundred years old and needed repair and restoration. The temporary wooden furnishings of the sanctuary were thought to be unsatisfactory. A new sacristy was required as the original sacristy was small and inadequate.

McCormick, Tracey & Mullarkey Architects, Derry, were engaged by Bishop Edward Daly (1974-1993) to carry out this work which was completed in three phases.

Work on the external renovation began in June 1985. The external stonework of the main building, the tower and spire were cleaned down, restored and repointed. The roof slates were entirely replaced with Bangor slate. The main contractors were Messrs. George Cregan & Sons, Derry.

The second phase of the work was carried out in 1987-1988 and involved the construction of the new sacristy and conference room. This new building was faced with granite. The main contractors were Messrs. O’Neill Bros., Derry.

The third phase began in June 1989. The Cathedral had to be closed for six months. The main features of this work involved the permanent reorganisation of the sanctuary, the provision of new seating, floor covering and the re-decoration of the entire building. The main contractors once again were Messrs. George Cregan & Sons, Derry. The total cost for these three phases of renovation was more than £1.2m. The funds were raised locally and the debt was cleared within weeks of the completion of the work.

The dedication of the new altar and the solemn re-opening of St. Eugene’s Cathedral took place on Sunday, 17th Decmeber 1989, and was carried out by Bishop Edward Daly in the presence of Cardinal Tomás Ó Fiaich - Archbishop of Armagh.